Published February 20, 2008
MIAMI – There was little dancing in the streets, no widespread celebration. In Little Havana, the heart of the Cuban exile community, the long-awaited news that Cuban President Fidel Castro resigned brought only muted glee — and a feeling that little would change for the communist island many had fled.
As news of the resignation spread, motorists honked vigorously at police patrol cars and television reporters. Isolated shouts of "Free Cuba!" echoed in the streets, and small groups gathered to chat in local eateries. But the community's reaction to the news, long expected to spark vibrant celebration, was filled with caution.
"I hope this is the beginning of the end of the system, but we have to wait," said 35-year-old chemist Omar Fernandez, who left Cuba for the U.S. six years ago.
Repeated rumors of Castro's death over the years helped prepare residents and officials for a day that all knew would eventually come. But the scene here Tuesday was far quieter than when thousands jubilantly took to the streets after Castro temporarily handed power to his brother Raul in July 2006. The fact is, residents said, Cuba is the same with Castro's brother in power.
"It's the same repression inside Cuba. No freedom. No refuge. Lack of liberty," said Pedro Lopez, 54, who came from Cuba about 30 years ago.
Most exiles view Fidel Castro as a ruthless dictator who forced them, their parents or grandparents from their home after he seized power in a revolution in 1959. Police said they were "keeping a sharp eye" on Little Havana, but no disruptions had been reported. The Coast Guard said it did not expect a mass migration or see a need to increase patrols off Florida.
Ulises Colina, a 65-year-old electrical technician, said he was not certain if the resignation would bring any change. "I think it was a foregone conclusion that his political career would be over soon," Colina said.
Colina theorized that any change in Cuba would have to come from within the military.
"Changes? Well, he's the leader of the gang but he has a bunch of auxiliary gang members who don't want to see change," Colina said.
At a popular Cuban restaurant farther from Little Havana, the sentiments were similar.
"Even though this is great news for Cubans and for me personally, but I don't think anything is going to change," said Jose Miranda, 46. "Last time I was here was when the news said that he was really sick and we thought that he was dead. And look what has happened. Nothing."
Not all were reserved after hearing the news, and some took it as another call to demand change. Santiago Portal wore a white suit, red bow tie and a stars-and-stripes top hat as he danced and flashed the peace sign in front of the popular Versailles restaurant.
"Cuba Libre!" Portal, 62, shouted, holding a sign that read in Spanish, "Fidel died. I want change."
Miguel Saavedra echoed his cry from across the street, where a huge Cuban flag hung from between two palm trees.
"The time is now!" Saavedra shouted. "Freedom for Cuba! Forty-nine years too much!"
About 1.5 million Cubans and Cuban-Americans live in the U.S., two-thirds of them in Florida, and the majority in Miami-Dade County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Since they began arriving, the Miami area has become a mostly Hispanic, bustling city that is a hub for international trade and finance, but also deals with poverty. What was once a city marked by Southern drawls in English transformed into a place where Spanish is spoken everywhere.
The community with the second-largest Cuban population after Miami is Union City, N.J. There, as in Miami, Cuban-Americans were largely skeptical about the immediate prospects for change in their homeland.
"It's one dictator for the next," said Frank Corbato, 48, a truck driver born in Havana who lives in nearby North Bergen.
Corbato, who came to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, said he wants the U.S. embargo to end, but thinks now isn't the time to do it. "Wait a little bit and see if change comes," he said.
The first wave of Cubans who fled the island immediately after Castro took power, often sending their children ahead of them on so-called "Peter Pan" flights, generally support the most hardline U.S. policies toward the island. With waning family ties to the island, they are among the most vocal backers of the U.S. embargo.
The views of their children and successive waves of Cuban immigrants are more complicated. Those who came over since 1980 are more likely to have grown up under the Castro government and still have family on the island. They chafe under the Bush administration's 2004 restrictions, which limit the money that can be sent home and restrict island visits to once every three years for immediate relatives only.
Cuba experts in the U.S. also didn't expect any immediate shifts in policy.
"For Cuban-Americans it doesn't mean a whole big deal. It's the continuation with a different face," said Andy Gomez of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.